BFI Classics: Stagecoach

Author: E. Buscombe

Stagecoach is the quintessential western film. It was directed by the pioneering John Ford and starred John Wayne in is breakthrough lead role. For many people it has become an essential part of film history and this book is an education on the making of the film. The book breaks down the plot scene by scene and examines the shooting of the film in particular the landscape that would become pivotal to the western genre. Monument Valley is covered in red sand, banked by wide mountains and dotted with strange towering rock formations. It is isolated but has become the setting for numerous films; in part this is down to John Ford’s choice to shoot their back in 1939. The importance of this film and its influence on modern cinema is profound. Edward Buscombe, the writer of this book, is as passionate as he is academic in his study of this classic. Buscombe is a trusted writer; he wrote the BFI Companion to the Western and is perhaps best known for his book Cinema Today (essential reading as part of any media studies course).  Clearly we are in good hands with this man.

The BFI book series, for those of you that are not familiar with it, spans several different genres and time periods in film history. Each book is an analysis of a particular film and is written by a peer reviewed academic. This gives the books an objective, critical perspective in many cases- while this is true in our book it manages to be far from dull. Perhaps it is the glamour of the whiskey, gun toting cads that made the film, who were not too dissimilar to their characters but either way I was hooked to read about this particular way of making a picture. In fact I missed my stop on the train as I read another chapter.

At the start of the analysis Buscombe looks at the socio-economic climate of America and the historical context between the Indians and the white pioneers. Buscombe pauses a moment to explain this to the British reader, who might otherwise be lost, but more clarifications are needed. Clearly Stagecoach is a genre driven piece and its context in history must be clearly defined for an un-American readership. Buscombe is very good at describing 1939 but the novel on which Stagecoach is based The Stage to Lordsburg is set in 1880. A short description of the events that led to and inspired the book would have been welcome.

Buscombe presents the analysis in a scene by scene breakdown; which allows the interested reader to review the film in real time or find a particular moment easily. At first I was put off by the format, wondering if it would be a reflection of everything on screen but Buscombe uses anecdotes, Illustrations and records to provide a picture of the shoot. The book is well researched and although it is clear that Buscombe has prior knowledge of the subject his is neither overbearing or too dry-academic. Buscombe does not limit himself to Stagecoach alone but look briefly at other relevant westerns including: The Big Trail and The Searchers.

The greatest benefit of the BFI series is records which they have access to and publish alongside the written analysis. In this case a comprehensive budget was published which had payments broken down for the stars as well as the production costs. Conversely at the end of the book is a box office breakdown which allows the reader to understand the immediate impact the film had on the market. Buscombe also presents further notes and reading for the interested reader.  This part of the book would be invaluable to the student or teacher alike pointing them in the direction of interviews, articles and biographies.

On balance the analysis can be a bit descriptive, focused on the screen moment by moment and mise-en-scene heavy. However I like this book, it is well researched the writer obviously had a great deal of passion for the subject. Furthermore the film it is written about is not an artsy one off- it is an all in one example of a genre. Buscombe recounts Orson Welles’s opinion of Stagecoach– who claimed to have watched it 40 times during the making of Citizen Cane and said it was a master class in film making. I agree. Watch the film and if you were to read any of the BFI Classic Series read this one: It will provide you with an insight into great film making.

Lauren Hounsome

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